“No way is that natural!” A small freestanding arch made from three stones balanced precariously on a flat topped hoodoo catches me by surprise. After 30 years photographing the 9 San Juan Basin Badlands, you’d think I’d seen everything in the way of fragile, impossible-looking hoodoos but I’m still regularly amazed. Moving closer, I make sure this unlikely structure wasn’t crafted using superglue rather than wind, rain, sun, ice and time--lots of time. That’s the badlands’ enigma that keeps me returning: Why would nature create this unending art supply ? Does it suggest an esthetic spirit in the universe or a twisted sense of humor?

Ah Shi Sle Pah is the hoodoo king of the 9 San Juan Basin badlands. What it lacks in scenic drama and brilliant color combinations it more than compensates for in the sheer diversity and ingenuity of its countless natural sculptures. The most remote and difficult badland to find by car, it offers the easiest hiking once you arrive. Carved into a featureless plain, there’s no hint until you stand on the rim and look across a gigantic cul-de-sac completely ringed with branching, hoodoo packed side washes.

More subtle than many of the badlands, the color schemes here tend toward earth tones and pastels yet still have ample variety. I remember hiking Ah Shi Sle Pah with a friend of mine who makes his living as an artist. I was referring to the “faint reds, oranges and yellows” when he chuckled, looked around at the formations and started reciting the true color names: yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, green oxide, mars violet, Prussian blue, black, charcoal grey, cool grey, titanium white, red oxide and vermillion all harmonizing and contrasting beneath a cerulean domed sky.

Hiking elevation changes in Ah Shi Sle Pah are as subtle as the color schemes. You have two very level route choices: up on the rim, or down in the wash bottom maze. The rim affords panoramic high desert views across the badlands to far off horizons and aerial perspectives directly above sheer walled hoodoo jungles. But for observing nature up close as she sculpts every shape and texture imaginable, take the gentle path down into the sinuous labyrinth of flat bottomed, sandy washes lined with never ending hoodoos.

I’ve been writing about the 9 San Juan Basin Badlands for almost as long as I’ve photographed them. Over the years I’ve come up with some outrageous metaphors trying to convey the strange, quasi-organic humor of the hoodoo gardens: A Georgia O’Keefe dreamscape? Armies of Dr Seuss characters carved from stone? The ghosts of dinosaurs and other monsters who once roamed here? A campy Star Trek set waiting for Captain Kirk and the crew to beam down? But hoodoo viewing in Ah Shi Sle Pah is such a relaxing, almost elegant experience that here’s my latest: A summer Friday evening in Santa Fe, strolling the Canyon Road gallery openings where the only things missing are the complimentary wine, French endive and brie.

Seriously though…Ah Shi Sle Pah is carved from the same geologic layers as the neighboring Bisti and De Na Zin. Eighty million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period the last dinosaurs roamed a forested seaside river delta. Salt water lagoons and fresh water swamps mingled in lush environments that have subsequently produced over 200 fossil plant and animal species. The initial paleontological finds here in the early 1980’s helped spur the establishment of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and added momentum to efforts that culminated with official wilderness status for Bisti and De Na Zin in 1985.

Back in those days the paleontologists were particularly interested in an area called the “Fossil Forest.” Dozens of large petrified, upright stumps from cypress-like conifers form a still standing phantom forest. Now pretty much forgotten, the Fossil Forest lies in the middle of a large triangle formed by Bisti, De Na Zin and Ah Shi Sle Pah. It seems to me that Ah Shi Sle Pah and the Fossil Forest are equally deserving of wilderness status – maybe it’s time to remedy this oversight ?

Where — Ah Shi Sle Pah wash is best accessed off US 550. Turn west onto County Road 7800 (Navajo 45A) at the Nageezi Trading Post about 46 miles south of Bloomfield or west onto State Highway 57 at Blanco Trading post about 28 miles south of Bloomfield. These two roads both head southwest and converge about 15 miles in, continuing on as State 57 another 3 or 4 miles to the badlands on the north side of the road. There is only one very small, easy to miss BLM boundary marker indicating the two track, half mile route into the parking area.

When – Just about year round depending on recent precipitation or current temperatures. Even during peak summer heat, early morning hikes can be quite pleasant. You should definitely avoid monsoon season as the roads and hikes become extremely difficult.

MORE INFO: Call Recreation Specialists Rich Simmon at the Farmington Area BLM Office—505-599-8900


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